Are you feeling a little shaken after learning what’s really in salad dressing? Did seeing what’s really in marinara sauce stir your pot? Yeah—me too. But never fear—dressings are sauces are easily replicated at home. In fact, they’re one of the best places to start eating unprocessed, simply because they’re so easy to make and such a huge improvement over what you can buy in the store, both in terms of taste and chemical-free quality.
Salad dressing is one of those foods that once you go homemade, you can never go back. Really. I’ve canned my own tomatoes and I still buy canned tomatoes at the store; I’ve made homemade yogurt and, frankly, the stuff at the store holds my fruit better. But salad dressing! It is phenomenally easy , significantly tastier, cheaper and xanthan gum-free. Who knew it could be so simple?
The basic idea of a salad dressing is to mix up oil, an acidic component, like lemon juice or vinegar, spices, and something to bind it all together.
My basic salad dressing recipe involves extra virgin olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar, mustard, and honey. Honey acts as the emulsifier that’s added to processed dressings in the form of soy lecithin, xanthan or guar gum, or maltodextrin. Emulsifiers smooth things over—they hold mustard to oil to vinegar, and then the combo to your tongue. While they are most often chemical additives, they certainly don’t have to be. Anything viscous—jam, maple syrup, mayonnaise—also works.
My recipes can barely be called that—they are more like eyeballed ratios, mixed and drizzled. For my basic vinaigrette, I use a roughly two to one ratio of oil to vinegar; I usually at a very precise “drizzle” of honey and a “scoop” of mustard, and then whisk the whole thing together with a fork.
My mom makes batches of salad dressing and stores them in the fridge. She often pulls out the blender to mix them up, which offers much more latitude for what you can throw in the mix. She went through a big apple phase, which thickens the dressing nicely—replacing and replicating the action of artificial thickeners added to most bottled salad dressings.
You can make Asian-inspired dressings using sesame oil, soy sauce, and perhaps a little tahini if you’ve got it around. I’m on a kick of making miso sauté sauce, which entails precisely the above, except with miso mixed in. And when I say mixed in, I literally mean whisked around a glass jar with a fork.
Because we’ve been getting bunches and bunches of dill in my CSA share, my current favorite dressing is based on the fresh herb. Fresh herbs make any salad dressing (or salad, for that matter) come alive. If the cilantro in my garden bursts forth this summer, I’ll make fresh, Mexican-inspired ranch dressing, which basically involves mayo and buttermilk, with some vinegar for a fresh tang. (Here’s a great ranch primer from The Kitchn.) I’m not banking on the basil plant—I love basil and have tried to grow it two summers running, to no avail (to my watering forgetfulness)—but if it takes I’ll soon be shifting to a sweet basil vinaigrette.
I adapted this recipe from the Tucson CSA.
Basic Dill Vinaigrette
1 bunch dill
1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
Toss all ingredients in blender. Blend until smooth. Store in sealed jar. Keeps in the refrigerator for 4 to 6 weeks.